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'We need an evidence-based strategy for agricultural innovation to protect our harvests'

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Can we prevent pests, weeds and diseases from destroying crops?

Prof. Toby Bruce describes current crop protection challenges and the CROPROTECT network he has developed.

The challenge farmers face

UK farmers are currently facing a huge problem which undermines the viability of their businesses and their economic competitiveness: the pests, weeds and diseases that attack their crops are becoming pesticide-resistant. Our farmers don’t have enough tools in the toolkit to stop their harvests from being destroyed.[1] Gone are the days when there was a readily available pesticide for each pest, weed or disease they have to contend with.

There is a widespread assumption that all agricultural challenges have been taken care of in the “Green revolution” last century but this is not the case. Agriculture exists in a dynamic environment and the high yielding varieties that were developed in the Green revolution only deliver high yields under favourable conditions. They were sheltered from pests, weeds and disease due to large scale effective pesticide applications. Now the availability of pesticides is declining, this system is no longer propped up and is highly vulnerable to adapted pests, weeds and diseases.[2]

Developing sustainable crop protection was already a major issue for the industry, but now with uncertainties regarding farm incomes after Brexit it is all the more critical. Although some progress has been made towards developing new control methods – for example beneficial nematodes for slug control – they sometimes cost more than conventional pesticides and additional training may be required. If farming subsidies are reduced, it is critical that crop losses are minimised to protect farm incomes, and that any novel approaches are pragmatic and affordable. People are starting to ask questions that 10 years ago would have been unthinkable in a developed country like the UK, such as “Will the pests, weeds and diseases that destroy crops drive farmers out of business?” To prevent this scenario, we need to ensure we are supporting our farming industry with science and innovation to generate the solutions that will make farmers competitive and productive in the global food market.

The CROPROTECT network – 1000 farmer and agronomist users in the loop

At Rothamsted Research we are doing cutting-edge science to advance knowledge and develop innovative solutions that will enable and support the sustainable intensification of agriculture globally. In a ground-breaking new approach for sharing information with UK farmers and agronomists, I have developed the CROPROTECT website and phone apps. This network provides easy access to information about pest, weed and disease management for farmers and agronomists, especially in situations where effective pesticides are not available and alternative approaches are required.

Pesticide usage info is readily available on the label of the pesticide container, but as the solutions “no longer come out of a can” (Keith Norman, Velcourt) there is an information gap about the key points for alternative or integrated approaches. CROPROTECT aims to fill that gap by distilling key management recommendations for pests, weeds and diseases.

The pests, weeds and diseases featured are the ones that pioneer users of the system flagged up as being of particular concern. The user reporting system allows two-way flow of information and not only allows CROPROTECT to be responsive to users’ needs but also provides evidence that can be used to inform wider R&D strategy.

With a growing network and a critical mass now reaching 1000 users CROPROTECT has become a valuable crowdsourcing tool. It can answer the question “What are the main target species in the arable sector?”. These are summarised in the table.

The pest, weed and disease targets ranked most highly by CROPROTECT users are the ones for which management is most challenging and many have evolved resistance to the pesticides currently available. This means we need to rethink how we protect harvests and deliver new solutions.

To give two specific examples, wheat can no longer be grown as a winter crop in large regions of the UK due to herbicide resistant blackgrass. The crop now has to be grown in the spring which means about 2 tonnes per hectare less yield. In 2015, problems with cabbage stem flea beetle damage meant that 3% (16,000 ha) of the UK oilseed rape crop failed to establish.[3] These are not minor niche markets but two of the most important crops for British arable farming. The need for innovation is felt by mainstream growers.

The opportunity to drive agricultural innovation

Innovation[4] is needed to make an impact on how agriculture works.[5] We need R&D investment to deliver a second green revolution that gives high yields with lower inputs.[6] The first green revolution that was based on using more inputs was relatively easy to achieve. What is needed now will require more knowledge. Longer term investment and strategic planning is needed to avoid being left with a policy of crisis management. Clearly there are opportunities to promote sustainable growth via knowledge-intensive agriculture.

An example of previous research that made an impact was work on orange wheat blossom midge. Resistant wheat cultivars were developed in a collaborative project that provided near total control of the pest. This is perhaps an unusual example of a pest for which an alternative approach was developed before the pesticide was restricted. Chlorpyriphos (Dursban) was the main product used against the midge and was restricted at the end of March 2016.

Science is vital to deliver the new solutions. With greater independence to set policy following Brexit, there is an opportunity for the UK to become an “innovation nation” and a world leader in science and innovation, provided that sufficient investment is made.[4] The UK can champion evidence-based policy to stimulate a knowledge-based economy and a regulatory framework conducive to exploitation of research. However, some harmonisation across Europe is still needed because the EU is a large export market for UK agricultural produce and agricultural companies would also like to develop products for the whole EU and not just the UK. Regulation of crop protection is required to prevent off-target effects, but excessively precautionary approaches can be a block to innovation. There is a need to minimise crop losses to pests and innovation is needed to move beyond the current status quo which is highly dependent on use of broad-spectrum pesticides.

How to deliver an improved UK agriscience sector outside of the EU

Rothamsted Research and the NFU convened a workshop identifying the key areas of focus in order to have a world leading agriscience sector in the UK after Brexit.

Breeding oilseed rape varieties for pollinator-friendly traits

Amounts and sugar content of nectar vary between commercial varieties of oilseed rape (OSR) produced with different breeding systems, when tested in the glasshouse.

Black-grass requires a ‘three-pronged’ attack

Black-grass requires a three-pronged attack to promote and develop sustainable management solutions.

Mineral vital to human health will decrease due to climate change

New model developed to understand the variation in selenium concentrations in soil finds climate is key to its global distribution.

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For further information, please contact:

Dr Matina Tsalavouta (matina.tsalavouta@rothamsted.ac.uk), Tel: +44 (0) 1582 938 525

About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.

Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2013-2014 Rothamsted Researched received a total of £32.9M from the BBSRC.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes